After arriving at the hospital, scrubbing in and warming up with a few anatomy questions with my attending, I was relaxed and ready to assist with the upcoming thyroidectomy. My patient, who will be referred to as “M,” was a 17-year-old girl who presented to the office with dizziness. After an extensive workup it was discovered that her symptoms were due to thyroid dysfunction. The surgery was meant to be a straightforward case, but the next few hours were far from routine.
The first steps of the surgery went beautifully; however, while attempting to remove the first hemilobe of the thyroid, the surgeon saw something he did not quite expect. There was a growth that did not resemble normal tissue. The lobe was removed and sent to pathology STAT. The results: papillary thyroid carcinoma.
My knees buckled, my shoulders tensed and a surge of adrenaline ran through me. I was 24 years old when I was diagnosed with this very same disease.
The difficult part for me was the fact that prior to surgery M had no idea she had cancer. What made it even worse was the realization that when she woke up, someone was going to have to deliver the news.
Hours later when it came time to check on her I was scared. What happens if I get there and nobody told her? What happens if she does not want to see me? What happens if her parents are angry? All of these thoughts were circulating in my mind and I could not process them all at once.
When I finally got to her room, I was terrified but I knew seeing her was the right thing to do. I knocked on the door and was greeted by M and her mother. I introduced myself, asked how she was feeling and if there was anything she needed before I asked the looming question. “So, were you informed as to how your surgery went and the outcome?” She looked down, dropped her eyes and replied, “The surgery went fine, but they told me I have cancer.”
I gently explained to her the reason it was so important for me to see her. I told her that two years ago, I too was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer she has. I told her that despite my diagnosis I am still successfully working toward my lifelong dream of becoming a physician, that I didn’t lose any part of myself and that after surgery and radiation I am cancer free and am living a very healthy and happy life.
She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you. The only other person in my family I know of who had cancer died almost immediately after being diagnosed. I don’t know how this happened, or why. And I can’t stop crying. Sometimes I’ll be laughing, like when I talk to my sister and then I just cry for no reason at all.” I told her she was entitled to feel however she wanted to about her diagnosis and explained that although sometimes bad things happen to good people, she would still be able to live the life she always dreamed of. After deciding she needed to get some rest, I promised to check on her in the morning, and said goodnight.
When I walked in the next day she was happy to see me and she looked much better than the night before. I sat down and talked to her for a while, gave her a hug, my contact information and wished her well. I was standing in front of the elevator on my way out and when the doors opened I saw M’s mother. She immediately greeted me with a smile and a hug and told me that after my visit, she and her husband were so grateful and were filled with hope instead of fear. She said that M felt much better about her diagnosis, and that they will be forever grateful for what I had done. I told her I was so appreciative that my visits made a difference and said that I did what I thought was right and was glad it helped. She hugged me again and with tears in her eyes, said goodbye and proceeded to her daughter’s room.
It took me several days to really absorb and reflect on the patient encounter I had and it helped me come to terms with my own illness experience. Getting to know M was a blessing because in my talks with her, I was able to provide reassurance, comfort and a shoulder to lean on from the unique perspective of being a survivor of the same illness. In a way, providing guidance and support to her was not only healing for her but also for me . My experience with her reminded me that the healing process does not end simply when interventions are completed. The doctor-patient relationship extends far beyond that.
The patient encounter is part of the healing process too and it’s important to be reminded of that. Kind words, a caring demeanor and authentic acts are as much a part of the healing process as any physical intervention we could offer. This experience not only reaffirmed my reasons for wanting to become a doctor, but it also helped me add a silver lining to my very traumatic illness experience. This experience helped me become a better medical student, a better person and will no doubt help me become a better doctor. It is an experience I will remember and cherish always and am grateful to have been a part of it.